Smack dab in the middle of the continental U.S. stands Columbia, Missouri’s fifth-largest city and home of the University of Missouri. With 71,000 students, “Mizzou,” or MU, is one of America’s largest public universities. Its academic influence, together with that of two smaller liberal arts institutions—Columbia College and Stephens College—lends Columbia a distinct cosmopolitan air.
Columbia, Missouri, owes its existence to the Smithton Land Company, which established a village in its name about one mile from present-day downtown. Smithton’s settlers eventually moved downhill, to what is known as the Flat Branch district, to gain more reliable access to water, and named their new city “Columbia” in 1821.
The advent of railroads spurred Columbia’s later growth, as did the University of Missouri’s founding in 1839. The University is the city’s biggest employer, followed by several health care systems. Education, physician access and work opportunities, plus a relaxed cost of living, are attractions that make Columbia a popular place to raise a family or retire.
Columbia visitors find plenty to see and do at any time of the year. The city center, known simply as “The District,” provides a mix of historic and modern architecture, shops and galleries. It boasts a thriving nightlife scene, with 70 bars and restaurants and 45 live performances a week.
The Blue Note is one must-see Columbia attraction for music aficionados. The intimate, eclectic venue has hosted local and big-name performers since it opened in 1980. Jazz lovers will want to see the Columbia home of John Williams “Blind” Boone, a gifted composer and pianist who pioneered ragtime music. Each year in early summer, Columbia celebrates the Blind Boone Ragtime and Early Jazz Festival.
Outdoors enthusiasts enjoy walking, running or biking along the nine-mile MKT Trail, a spur of the former Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad. The level terrain features woodlands, wetlands, a lake and a trailside brook. At McBaine, the MKT Trail joins the 237-mile-long Katy Trail, which bisects Missouri.
In summertime Columbia’s 60-acre Twin Lakes Park, southwest of MU, is great for fishing and nature walks, and features a water playground for kids. Going Bonkers, a nearby multi-level indoor playground designed by a physical therapist, encourages youngsters’ movement and creativity. Older kids will love Cosmo Park, a 28,000 square-foot skate park northwest of MU that is filled with elaborate courses to traverse.
Fifteen miles north of town, Pinnacles Youth Park provides young and old alike with a look at the rock formations of the Midwest. Its highlight is a 75-foot-tall, 1,000-foot-long limestone formation. For a look at the interior, explore Connor’s Cave below Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, just south of Columbia.
The MU campus hosts plenty of activities for Columbia visitors. The school’s Law Observatory is open to the public on Wednesdays evenings. Gaze at Saturn’s rings, clusters of stars as well as other space phenomena. If you visit town during the fall, be sure to attend at least one game at the school’s 70,000-seat football stadium, Faurot Field.